Brian Charlesworth on the errors of a new paper supposedly showing that a fundamental assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong

May 9, 2022 • 8:00 am

Intro by Jerry:  One of the pillars of neo-Darwinian evolution is the assumption, supported by a great deal of evidence, that mutation is “random.” This does not mean that mutations occur with equal frequency everywhere in the genome (they don’t), that different genes have the same mutation rate (they don’t), or that even within a gene some mutations don’t occur more often than others (they do). Rather, the statement that “mutation is random” means that the likelihood of a mutation occurring does not depend on whether in a given situation it would be advantageous or deleterious.

The idea that mutations are “nonrandom”—usually meaning that adaptive mutations are more likely to occur in some situations (e.g., a change in environment)—has been bruited about for years, mainly because if this was a fairly common phenomenon, it would create a substantial rethinking of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. But there is no way we know of that the frequency of an error in the DNA sequence, which is what a mutation is, can be elevated in the adaptive direction when the environment changes. (We know that environmental changes can raise the overall mutation rate, but this is not an adaptive phenomenon because the vast majority of mutations are harmful.) Because of this lack of evidence for “adaptive mutation,” and the absence of a mechanism whereby it could occur, evolutionists continue to accept that mutations are “random” in the sense I defined.

Recently, a paper appeared that seemed to show that at least one mutation in human hemoglobin—the one causing sickle-cell anemia when present in two copies—could occur more frequently in areas where the mutation is adaptive: malaria-ridden areas of Africa. The sickle-cell mutation, as Brian Charlesworth shows below, is adaptive, but only when present in one copy, when, together in a “heterozygote” with one copy of the “normal” hemoglobin beta chain, it confers substantial protection against malaria.  The heterozygote has higher survival and reproductive fitness than either the homozygote for the ‘normal’ allele, which is more prone to fatal malaria, and the sickle-cell homozygote, which has the disease sickle-cell anemia and is prone to die before adulthood.  The mechanics of population genetics show that if a heterozygote with one copy of each of two alleles has higher reproductive ability (read “survivorship” here) than either of the two homozygotes, it will be maintained in the population at a stable equilibrium frequency, regardless of how bad off the homozygotes are. The sufferings of those with sickle-cell anemia can be seen as the price paid because of the higher malaria resistance of heterozygotes carrying only one copy of the gene. It also shows that evolution doesn’t create the optimum situation: that would be a single mutation that causes malaria resistance when present in either one or two copies.

This, by the way, explains why African-Americans are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than people from other populations, for they still carry the “HbS” mutation prevalent in their ancestors who were brought to America as slaves. The frequency of the HbS mutation in the U.S., however, is now falling, and for two reasons: we don’t have malaria in the U.S., which is necessary to keep the gene at an equilibrium frequency, and because African-Americans have intermarried with whites, who don’t carry copies of HbS.  Eventually, prenatal testing and genetic counseling will be able to eliminate sickle-cell anemia, and the HbS allele, completely.

At any rate, the paper, by Melamed et al. (reference below), appeared to show that the mutation rate from the “normal” DNA sequence to the HbS “sickle-cell” sequence was higher in Africans than in Europeans. This was quickly picked up by the popular press as an example of “adaptive mutation” and as a refutation of modern evolutionary theory. (The “Darwin Was Wrong” trope still sells newspapers, especially in America!) Many readers wrote me and asked me about this paper, which I hadn’t yet read, but I told them that a better analysis was in the works.

I pointed this out to my friend, colleague, and ex-chairman (at Chicago) Brian Charlesworth, one of the world’s premier evolutionary geneticists. He quickly spotted the error in the Melamed et al. paper that refuted its conclusion of “adaptive mutation,” but was too busy to refute it on paper. After I kept hectoring him to write something up since the “Darwin was wrong” trope was associated with this paper in many articles in the popular press, he finally deigned to write a short and sweet refutation. Rather than submit it as a rebuttal to the journal (he said he has two refutations of other papers in press, and doesn’t want to get a reputation as a debunker), Brian allowed me to publish the rebuttal here. I’ve put it between the lines below.

Note that the error in Melamed et al. stems from a flaw in the assumptions: that all the new mutations analyzed were independent.


No evidence for an unusually high mutation rate to an adaptive variant

Brian Charlesworth
Institute of Evolutionary Biology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

The hemoglobin S variant (HbS) causes the near-lethal sickle cell disease when homozygous (present on both the maternal and paternal chromosomes) and confers protection against malaria when heterozygous (present on either the maternal or paternal chromosome). The HbS variant exists at substantial frequencies in several populations in Africa, as well as in Arabia and India. It is the classic example of heterozygote advantage, whereby a mutation that increases the fitness of its heterozygous carriers cannot replace its alternative because of the loss of fitness to homozygotes. (Note that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of R.A. Fisher’s discovery of how this process works). The HbS mutation is a single change from adenine to thymine at the sixth amino acid position in the beta globin gene, resulting a change in the amino-acid in the corresponding protein for valine to glutamic acid (it was the first mutation to be identified as causing a change in the sequence of a protein). Studies of the DNA sequences of chromosomes carrying the HbS mutation show that there are five major classes of sequences associated with it, but recent analyses show that the mutation probably arose only once, followed by recombination events that placed it onto different genetic backgrounds. This provides a classic example of what is known as a “partial selective sweep”, in which a new mutation with a selective advantage arises on a single genetic background, so that variants present on this background spread through the population in association with it.

Melamed et al. (2021) claim to have evidence that challenges the standard neo-Darwinian view that natural selection acts on mutations that arise “randomly”, i.e., without reference to their effects on the survival or fertility of their carriers (indeed, most mutations with noticeable effects reduce the fitness of their carriers). The evidence for Melamed et al.’s claim comes from an experiment in which the authors applied a novel technique for identifying new mutations in millions of sperm cells. With regard to the detection of HbS mutations, they characterized sperm from 7 African and 4 European men. They observed 9 instances of the HbS mutation in the sperm of Africans and none in the Europeans. They pointed out that HbS is at a selective advantage in Africans but not in Europeans, and suggested that the seemingly higher mutation rate is the result of a hypothetical process proposed by Adia Livnat, a co-author of the paper, whereby “adaptations and mutation-specific rates jointly evolve”. This claim has been disseminated in the media as evidence against the neo-Darwinian view of selection on random mutations [JAC: see below for some of these media references]– here it is claimed that mutations that are selectively advantageous in a particular environment arise more frequently than in environments where they lack an advantage.

However, there is no statistical support for the claim that there is a higher mutation rate to HbS in African men. While the authors looked at very large number of sperm, these came from only 11 individuals. Five of the nine HbS mutations occurred in a single individual, and 2 other individuals contributed 2 mutations each. The events within individuals cannot be treated as independent of each other, because there is a large population of dividing cells that are precursors of the mature sperm. If a mutation occurs in a cell that gives rise to several sperm after a number of divisions, there will be several copies of the mutation in the sperm pool. This is the cause of the well-established fact that the frequencies of mutations in human sperm increase with the man’s age. If we treat each individual as a single observation, we have 3 cases of HbS mutations among 7 Africans and 0 among 4 Europeans. Fisher’s exact test shows that the difference between Africans and Europeans has a probability of about 11% of arising by chance in the absence of any true difference.

There are other reasons for doubting this claim. First, it is exceedingly hard to see how there could be any biological process that could cause the HbS mutation to have a higher mutation rate in order to allow Africans to evolve malaria resistance, which is thought to have become a significant selective factor at most around 20,000 years ago. Mutations arise as errors in the replication of DNA molecules or as the result of damage to non-replicating molecules. There is no known mechanism whereby an organism could devise a process that would allow it to produce one specific class of mutation at a higher-than-average frequency just when that mutation is at an advantage. Further, the genetic evidence referred to above suggests that the HbS variant prevalent in human populations traces its ancestry back to a single ancestral mutation (Shriner and Rotimi, 2018; Laval et al., 2019) , so that there is no reason to believe that a high mutation rate has enabled multiple copies of the mutation to spread.

References

D. Melamed et al. 2022. De novo mutation rates at the single-mutation resolution in a human HBB gene region associated with adaptation and genetic disease. Genome Research 32:1-11.  Free pdf here

D. Shriner and C. N. Rotimi. 2018. Whole-genome-sequence-based haplotypes reveal single origin of the sickle allele during the Holocene wet phase. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 102:547-556.

G. Laval et al. 2019. Recent adaptive acquisition by African rainforest hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene sickle-cell mutation suggests past differences in malaria exposure.  Am. J. Hum. Genet. 104:553-561.


Among the many popular articles that cite Melamed et al. as a rebuttal of modern evolutionary theory, see here, here, here, here, here, ad infinitum:

Two examples (click on screenshot)s:

 

And here’s Brian:

 

Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general

May 3, 2022 • 11:00 am

The other day Steven Pinker received a form letter from Ann Bostrom, one of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asking for money to support action on climate change. (Bostrom is also a professor of environmental policy at the University of Washington.)  The AAAS also publishes Science, one of a handful of the world’s best science journals.

Below is part of Bostrom’s letter (her entire solicitation is below the fold; bolding is hers):

My research career has focused primarily on two important areas: Risk perception, communication, and management; and environmental policy and decision-making.Though these are two distinct areas of study, I see them as two sides of the same coin. If key decisionmakers—like politicians on Capitol Hill—don’t understand the risks of climate change, how likely are they to pass meaningful policies to mitigate those risks? If someone is deeply concerned about climate change, but doesn’t believe the government can effectively address it, how strongly will they support policy action?My personal quest to answer questions like these keeps leading me back to the same conclusion: It is essential that each of us support and uplift science to inform and spur action on climate change.

That’s why this Earth Day, I am asking 300 generous donors to step up and make a tax-deductible gift to the AAAS Flexible Action Fund to support our nearly 175-year-strong mission to build trust in science and fortify key decision-making with evidence. Can I count on you to be one of them?

As you’ll see from his response below, Steve was distressed by the invitation and the AAAS itself. His complaint? That the AAAS is being unscientific and counterproductive in its strategy to enhance scientific literacy and action on climate change. The organization is and has been unscientific in assuming that rejection of science is simply caused by a deficit in knowledge; and it’s been oblivious to empirical data suggesting that this rejection is in fact largely political—a problem the AAAS relentlessly exacerbates with its recent but aggressive left-wing branding. Finally, Steve argues that the organization’s steadfast refusal even to consider alternative explanations to left-wing orthodoxy leaves it proposing what are probably ineffectual solutions to major problems. There is, for example, no mention of nuclear power.

(Steve also reproduces a tendentious and offensive tweet that one of the organization’s former editors issued attacking journalist Jesse Singal and psychologist Paul Bloom. This is just one example of how ideology has permeated the journal.)

Needless to say, Pinker refused to become one of the “generous donors”, and chided the AAAS for politicizing science in its “lurch to the left.” That politicization, he feels—and I agree—is a strong impediment to the objectivity needed to solve any scientific problem. Climate change is one such problem, and its solution is hampered by tribalism.

Steve gave me permission to post his response to Ann Bostrom, which I’ve put below. He also received a short response from Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals, which I also have permission to publish.

First, go below to the fold to read Bostrom’s solicitation, and then read Pinker’s response here (with tweets enclosed). Finally, read Thorp’s tepid response—actually a nonresponse.


Pinker’s response to the solicitation:

Dear Professor Bostrom,

I recently received your solicitation for a donation to the AAAS. I share with you an interest in risk perception and communication, as well as environmental policy, topics which I explore in my recent books Rationality and Enlightenment Now. I also share your concern that politicians on Capitol Hill, and the American public, be aware of the risks of anthropogenic climate change and how they can be reduced.

For precisely these reasons I cannot in good conscience agree to your request to donate money to the AAAS. The Association is currently making these hazards worse, not better.

First, it is astonishing that an association for the advancement of science does not take a scientific approach to public acceptance of scientific conclusions. The letter that went out over your name assumes that the problem is a lack of access to scientific evidence. Yet as I’m sure you’re aware, studies of public opinion by Dan Kahan and others have shown that deniers of the scientific consensus on climate change, evolution, and Covid are no less informed than believers. Presentation of scientific arguments, moreover, does little to change their mind.

The difference is political: the farther someone is to the right, the less they believe the scientists on these hot-button issues. My own experience as a scientific communicator confirms that there is enormous distrust of the scientific and academic establishments, because people believe these establishments have been captured by the political left and that any dissent from orthodoxy will be met with censorship or cancellation.

The solution is obvious. Scientific organizations must cultivate a reputation for objectivity, neutrality, openness to debate, and consideration of evidence for alternative hypotheses. Yet it is precisely in these areas that the AAAS, including Science magazine, have been making the problem worse.

I will give three examples of how the AAAS appears to be going out of its way to alienate any politician or citizen who is not a strong leftist.

  1. Science magazine appears to have adopted wokeism as its official editorial policy and the only kind of opinion that may be expressed in the magazine. An example is the recent special section on the underrepresentation of African Americans among physics majors, graduate students, and faculty members. This situation is lamentable and worthy of understanding. But the six articles in the issue assume as dogma that the underrepresentation is caused by “white privilege”: that “the dominant culture has discouraged diversity,” and “white people use their membership in a dominant group to assert political, cultural, and economic power over those outside that group.” Though Science is ordinarily committed to open debate on scientific controversies, no disagreements with this conspiracy theory were expressed. And though the journal is supposedly committed to empirical tests, no data were presented that might speak to alternative explanations, such as that the cause of the under-representation lies in the pipeline of prepared and interested students. If we want to increase the number of African Americans in physics, it matters a great deal whether we should try to fix the nation’s high schools or accuse physics professors of white supremacy. Yet Science magazine has decided, without debate or data, to advocate the latter.
  2. SciLine, the AAAS resource for journalists touted in your fundraising message, includes a webpage with primers on climate change.  This includes the following articles on energy:

“Wind energy in the United States”

“Biomass energy in the United States”

“Hydropower in the United States”

“Renewable energy in the United States”

“Geothermal energy in the United States”

“Solar energy in the United States”

Notice anything missing? There is nothing on nuclear energy in the United States. This is despite the fact that nuclear energy is currently the carbon-free source that exceeds every one of these alternatives in US energy consumption, and despite the fact that such esteemed climate and energy scientists as James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, and Kerry Emanuel have written that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power”,

For the AAAS to omit any mention of nuclear power in its resource for journalists on climate change is deeply irresponsible and can only be explained by the fact that nuclear power fell out of fashion among left-wing and Green political factions more than 40 years ago.

  1. Last year, Science’s editor for the behavioral sciences, Tage Rai, posted racist, unsourced, obscenity-laced tweets which libeled an important science journalist (Jesse Singal) and accused a distinguished psychologist (Paul Bloom) of bigotry for interviewing him. (See screenshot below.) This was because they discussed hypotheses about transgender issues that disagree with the tendentious and scientifically dubious orthodoxy. Though Rai has since departed from Science, this kind of communication should not be the public face of this country’s premier journal for science.

As best I can tell, awareness of the hazards of politicization of science among the officers of AAAS and the editors of Science is zero. Certainly the issue has not been broached in its communications or the pages of the magazine. Yet this lurch to the left is distorting their coverage of vital scientific issues such as climate change, and is in danger of alienating the majority of American legislators and citizens who are not hard leftists.

I urge the AAAS and the editors of Science to become mindful of this vital issue for the future of science in this country.

Sincerely
Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Harvard University
William James Hall 964
33 Kirkland St.
Cambridge, MA 02138

www.stevenpinker.com

sapinker@twitter

facebook.com/StevenPinkerPage

Enclosures:

Tweet from former behavioral sciences editor of Science, Tage Rai [JAC: below]

Solicitation letter from Prof. Ann Bostrom [JAC: below the fold]


Here’s the AAAS’s response to Pinker from Holden Thorp, the Editor in Chief of Science and its stable of journals. (I’ve redacted phone numbers and email addresses.)

From: Holden Thorp Sent: Sunday, May 1, 2022 10:02 AMTo: Pinker, Steven Subject: FW: Response to “Setting an ambitious goal for Earth Day”

Dr. Pinker,

                Thanks for your note.  We’re sorry to lose you as a donor, but I disagree with your analysis.  We will continue to cover the evidence for and impact of systemic racism.   Thanks for your support of AAAS in the past.

Holden

Holden Thorp

Editor-in-Chief, Science Family of Journals1200 New York Ave NWWashington, DC  20005


JAC:  Thorp’s non-response is disturbing. “I disagree with your analysis,” he says. Does that include the issues of both systemic racism and nuclear power.? We don’t know, as Thorp doesn’t mention what he disagrees with!

Pinker is an AAAS Fellow and crafted a long and reasoned argument. He surely deserved more than a “thanks, but no thanks” reply from the editor of Science!

This suggests that Thorp is simply not interested in engaging with a reasoned argument, wedded as he is to Science‘s “wokeist” ideology. And believe me, I’ve seen that wokeism many times, not just in Science but in Nature and its own stable of journals.

The explicit wedding of the world’s two premier science journals to political ideology is not a good sign, as it prioritizes politics over science. And all too often, politically infused science is ineffective science.

 

Click “continue reading” below to see Ann Bostrom’s original solicitation for donations:

Continue reading “Pinker vs. the AAAS on the politicization of climate change—and science in general”

New paper on “cancel culture in science”

February 7, 2022 • 9:38 am

This paper written by four chemists just appeared in Nachrichten aus der Chemie (“Chemistry News”), the news outlet outlet of the German Chemical Society. It’s in English, and free online, so you should be able to open the paper by clicking the screenshot below. It’s a call for scientists to resist ideological pressures that may distort or reject science, as happened during the “Lysenko affair” in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The thesis of the paper is this: whereas scientific censorship used to come from the top (cf. Lysenko/Stalin, with “proper” genetics enforced by the government, or Nazi Germany, which decried “Jewish physics”, driving many great physicists out of the country), now the “cancellation” begins on the bottom, with social media sites and readers pressuring journal editors or publishing companies, sometimes resulting in the rejection of sound papers because they contravene an established ideological narrative. And there is also policing of language. This kind of “cancellation,” of course, has to come ultimately from the top, but is propelled by disaffected people on social media.

A few quotes from the paper (indented)

The modern form: cancel culture

Suppression today takes the form of „Cancel Culture“, censorship administered not by repressive governments but by Twitter vigilantes, an „outrage mob“ „whose goal is to sanction or punish … individuals or organization[s] they consider responsible for something that offends, insults, or affronts their beliefs, values, or feelings“.1)

Consider the cancellation of chemist Tomáš Hudlický,4,5) who in 2020 published an essay in Angewandte Chemie discussing the progress of organic synthesis and expressing his views on the hiring practices and training of scientists and the integrity of the literature.

The publication sparked a Twitter firestorm that condemned the article as „offensive“, „inflammatory“; the content as „alienating“, „hurtful“, „xenophobic“; the paper as „abhorrent“, „egregious“; and Hudlický as „racist“, „misogynist“, a „slithering insect“. Sixteen editorial board members resigned in protest of the publication. The journal removed the paper from its website (an unprecedented act), issued an abject apology, suspended two editors, and began an internal investigation. Condemnation ensued in blogs, journals, and statements issued by chemical societies.

We invite readers to read Hudlický’s essay and his elaboration to the National Academy of Scholars.5) Whether one agrees with his views or not, a civilised debate should have ensued, not an avalanche of insults. The journal could have invited a rebuttal; instead it capitulated to the mob.

Hudlický’s cancellation did not end there. A planned special issue of Synthesis in his honour was cancelled, invitations to speak at conferences and to review papers ceased, citations to his papers were deleted, and collaborators were encouraged to dissociate themselves from him.

The cancellation of geophysicist Dorian Abbot is another example of censoring an individual’s scientific contributions because of his views on non-scientific matters.6–8) Abbot had been invited to deliver a public lecture at MIT on „climate and the potential for life on other planets“. But a small group of activists, outraged by Abbot’s advocacy8) for equal opportunity, fairness, merit-based evaluation, and academic freedom, initiated a social media campaign to uninvite him. MIT quickly cancelled the event, violating their own „policy of open research and free interchange of information among scholars“.

These examples underscore authorities’ responsibility to resist outrage mobs: „Although outrage mobs often trigger the punishment process, in Western democracies, mobs no longer actually burn witches at stakes. … Mobs do not get papers retracted; that is the decision of editors and editorial boards. Thus, the key turning point in whether an academic outrage mob is effective at punishing an academic for their ideas is … the action of authorities.“1)

Well, one can argue about whether a civilized debate could have ensued: that may be impossible in these days when people get heated up and censorious so quickly. But what cannot and should not happen is for editors to bow to social-media pressure just to reduce the heat.  Yes, they can go back and “look at” a paper to see if it’s sound, but all too often that reexamination is selective, spurred by the social-media mob, and with editors looking for reasons to censor papers or talks.

The Dorian Abbot cancellation, which I’ve written about before (see posts here), is unforgivable (MIT is the culprit). Because Abbot had used social media to oppose DEI initiatives, public outcry made the MIT administration cancel a prestigious invited lecture—one that had nothing to do with DEI. It was a public lecture on global warming and the possibility of alien life.

The point is that science should oppose the incursion of political views into science, though we should not forget, of course, that some science has been done with political ends, and that scientific results have sometimes been warped to meet these ends. Scientists are not purely apolitical animals, and sometimes it affects their work.

But it doesn’t help that journals are now policing science and its language to ensure that people don’t get offended. Get a load of this from the Krylov et al paper (emphasis is mine).

Some institutions have actually institutionalised censorship. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), a major publisher, has issued guidelines10) for editors to „consider whether or not any content … might have the potential to cause offence“. An RSC memo explains that the guidelines were developed in response to the Hudlický affair.

The document elaborates: „The aim of this guidance is to help you to identify and prevent the publication of inappropriate content in our journals and books.… Words, depictions and imagery have the potential to cause offence…. There can be a disparity between the intention of an author and how their content might be received – it is the perception of the recipient that determines offence, regardless of author intent.“

The editors are instructed to be on the lookout for „[a]ny content that could reasonably offend someone on the basis of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, marital or parental status, physical features, national origin, social status or disability“ or are „[l]ikely to be upsetting, insulting or objectionable to some or most people“. These guidelines are so broad as to justify censoring anything in chemistry and beyond.

Note that, like the NYT’s firing of Donald McNeil after he used the “n-word” in a didactic context,the RSC is taking the NYT’s stance that “Intent is irrelevant.” All that matters is how offended someone is by a remark, not what the person who made the remark actually meant or intended. That is not a rational way to deal with conflict, and of course the law distinguishes regularly between intentional and accidental harm.

Krylov et al. end like this:

Censorship is antithetical to science. Rather than turning social media censorship into policy, scientific leadership worldwide should reject cancel culture and defend the core principle of science – the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.

This kind of censorship happens all the time in the humanities: think of Rebecca Tuvel’s demonization when she wrote a philosophical paper on transracialism vs. transsecualism. She survived that one, but others haven’t.

As a coda here, the editors of Nachrichten were besieged with social-media pushback, especially strong for a paper that isn’t that controversial. There were not only tweets, but phone calls and actual letters to the journal, all complaining about the paper and calling for its retraction. I forgot to mention, and am adding this later, that the overwhelming majority of comments on social media, including tweets, were positive: approving of the paper’s message. There are a whole lot of silent people out there who don’t like cancel culture and abhor the “science needs a reckoning” attitude.

There was a rebuttal published only a couple of days after Krylov et al. came out and accusations that the authors were anti-Semitic because they discussed scientific suppression by the Nazis (the second author of the Krylov et al. piece is Jewish. . .)

The journal is now creating a “portal” for people to weigh in about the paper. But if a paper complaining about cancel culture itself gets so much heated reaction, this bodes very poorly for the future of objective scientific discourse.

I once thought that science would be the last area where the Woke would exercise their policing, but I was wrong. Given the power and respect afforded by many to science, it’s only natural that people who see science as “just another narrative”, or those who want that power and respect to devolve on themselves, would go after science in general.  Although individual scientists of the past are being scrutinized for political or moral stands that wouldn’t pass muster today, remember that it is science itself that is being accused of being harmful, racist, and a vehicle for white supremacy, and “colonialism.”

The inanities of Scientific American—almost all within just one year

January 26, 2022 • 1:00 pm

I’m tired of beating up on Scientific American, even though the magazine saw its best days years ago and is superannuated—it was founded in 1845 and has published work by 200 Nobel Laureates.  No, I’m not going to say that—I’ll let someone else do it. That someone is Peter Burns, who, at Medium, wrote the article below (click on the screenshot to read it):

There’s not a lot new here, as Burns just reiterates that Sci. Am. published the much-discussed hit piece on Ed Wilson, calling him a racist (Gregor Mendel was also tarred with that label) only a few days after Wilson died. I know of no evidence that Wilson was a racist, though some hint darkly that they will produce that evidence. And surely Mendel was not a racist. He might have been an ageist (see below), but I’ll eat my hat if they dig out evidence that the friar was dire.

Burns goes through Monica McLemore’s ludicrous hit-job, but says about the same thing I did, so you can read for yourself.  He did dig into McLemore’s links, though, and here’s a bit of Burns worth reading:

You really should read that study; it’s an all-time classic of conflating science with ideology—and yet its inanities are taken seriously!

Before I go, I want to do two more things. First, make a joke (at bottom) and second, give a list of all the ludicrous pro-“elect” articles (I’m reading McWhorter’s book) that have recently appeared in Scientific American, as well as articles that are purely ideological and have nothing to do with science.  The Wilson hit-job was not a one-off thing. The bits in bold below link to my posts, and in plain text to the Sci. Am. articles. These are just articles I’ve written about that were called to my attention by readers; I don’t read the rag, and I’m sure there are others. I’ve not included the Wilson hit piece, which I discussed here.

1.) Bizarre acronym pecksniffery in Scientific American.Title: “Why the term ‘JEDI’ is problematic for describing programs that promote justice, diversity, equity, and Inclusion.”

2.) More bias in Scientific American, this time in a “news” article. Title: “New math research group reflects a schism in the field.”

3.) Scientific American again posting non-scientific political editorials.Title: “The anti-critical race theory movement will profoundly effect public education.

4.) Scientific American (and math) go full woke.  Title: “Modern mathematics confronts its white, patriarchal past.”

5.) Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy. Title: “Denial of evolution is a form of white supremacy.”

6.) Scientific American publishes misleading and distorted op-ed lauding Palestine and demonizing Israel, accompanied by a pro-Palestinian petition. Title: “Health care workers call for support of Palestinians.” (The title is still up but see #7 below)

7.) Scientific American withdraws anti-Semitic op-ed. Title of original article is above, but now a withdrawal appears (they vanished the text): “Editor’s Note: This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.”   Now, apparently, nothing falls outside the scope of the magazine!

8.) Scientific American: Religious or “spiritual” treatment of mental illness produces better outcomes. Title: “Psychiatry needs to get right with God.”

9.)  Scientific American: Transgender girls belong on girl’s sports teams. Title:  “Trans girls belong on girls’ sports teams.”

and one more for an even ten, as I’m not going to spend another minute doing this:

10.) Former Scientific American editor, writing in the magazine, suggests that science may find evidence for God using telescopes and other instruments. Title: “Can science rule out God?

Is ten enough to show you where the magazine is going? I’m surprised that the sub-editors don’t quit en masse. After all, these article were all published within the last three years.

Enough.

Let me finish by recounting a joke I made in my first post defending Mendel that several authors have now claimed for themselves. This is what Burns says:

Seriously, how was Gregor Mendel a racist? This guy spent his entire life in a monastery in Brno (in what is now the Czech Republic) observing peas grow. Unless he wrote somewhere that yellow peas are racially superior to green peas, I don’t see why his name was on the list.

I won’t call him out for theft of humor, but here’s what I said in my first post:

We’ve talked about most of these people before, and yes, they had ideas that today would be considered racist, but Darwin was also an abolitionist. And MENDEL, for crying out loud? Find me one piece of Mendel’s writings that suggest that the good friar was a racist! Were green peas considered superior to yellow peas? Here we have McLemore simply making stuff up: throwing Mendel’s discoveries of inheritance into the pot with the other accused “racists.” This is dreadful scholarship, almost humorous in its ignorant assertions.

Look, the green vs. yellow trope was mine (it’s slight but it’s okay), but if you want to steal something better, here’s a trope I suggest:

Mendel found that the shape of round peas was genetically dominant over that of wrinkled peas. This is nothing more than ageism on Mendel’s part.

If you read that anywhere from now on, remember that it’s been lifted from here.  And I’ll be here all year, folks!

 

Round vs. wrinkled peas. Actually, the recessive “wrinkled” trait is more prized by breeders, as wrinkled peas are sweeter.

Speaking of Scientific American. . .

January 7, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The latest webpage of Scientific American shows a big, bold, headline article that has nothing to do with science—at least as far as I know. Click on the screenshot to see the page, and then on this link to see the article on citizen militias, which of course decries them as white-supremacist organizations that constitute a profound danger to the Republic. That may be true as a generality, but it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.

Here’s the author; Ms. Cooter apparently has training at sociology but not science. (The article is classified under “sociology”.)

And just two quotes, one from the beginning of the article and the other from the end.

This was the third militia event I had attended. I am a sociologist, and at that time I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan just beginning in-depth fieldwork and interview research about the militia movement in the U.S. I had approached members of this group a month earlier during a public meeting at a strip mall diner because I wanted to understand why people join civilian groups that prepare for armed combat, and I planned to examine whether militias propagate racism and violence. My fieldwork in Michigan, as well as in-depth interviews that included groups in other states, continued through 2013. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with militia members, especially in Michigan, and they update me with their activities and responses to political and social events. We regularly speak about their values and their motivations. I follow their online posts. Last summer I conducted a survey asking members what they thought about protests related to COVID social restrictions and George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.

. . .Speculating on how militias may evolve in the future under increased scrutiny is difficult, in no small part because the units are still adapting to the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. In contrast to what many members had predicted, they did not see President Biden enact martial law or start an immediate attack on Second Amendment rights. Millenarian militias and other groups on the extreme end of the nostalgic group spectrum nonetheless remain vigilant, and some are eager for violence. Members may be plotting deadly actions, but now they are on increasingly private and secure Internet platforms that are more difficult to monitor.

So the reality is that the danger has not abated. Quite the opposite: Militia emotions and activity could be easily exacerbated by another political leader who encourages exclusionary thinking and paranoia or by a foreign terrorist attack that nostalgic groups perceive as threatening to America’s safety or culture.

Law enforcement must remain watchful for signs of radicalization in the movement, but as uncomfortable as it is, we as a society also must recognize that militias’ violent potential is not limited to these groups. They are not fluke outliers. Members share ideological similarities with other white Americans who distrust the government and believe the country has declined because of increasing liberalism. Much work remains to repair the distrust and to protect innocent people from the violence that it breeds.

This belongs in the op-ed section of the NYT, not in a science magazine.

Scott Aaronson hosts a guest post about the Sci Am hatchet job on E. O. Wilson

January 3, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Several readers called my attention to the new entry on Scott Aaronson’s website, which deals with the recent Scientific American op-ed about E. O. Wilson’s supposed “racism”. (You can find the original piece here. Did you know that Mendel was a racist, too?) The op-ed was execrable, and I’d hoped that Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief, would exercise some judgement by retracting it—but leaving it up, as they’ve done with other “canceled” pieces). No way, for I think the magazine actually wants to go in the Social Justice direction. And the author was black, so the optics would be even worse.

Over at his website Shtetl-Optimized, Scott Aaronson agrees, and writes a brief introduction to a guest post by Ashutosh Jogalekar, who notes that he once wrote for Scientific American (and copiously, too), but was fired for a few posts. (The Washington Post, which first called attention to the mess at Sci. Am. in 2014, explains Jogalekar’s firing here.)

Click on the screenshot to read Scott’s and Jogalekar’s takes.  Spoiler: they’re ticked off at Sci. Am.

I’m not going to bash the magazine or the author of the hit piece here, but will let these two have their say with a few quotes.

From Scott:

Anyway, in response to Scientific American‘s libel of Wilson, I wrote on my Facebook that I’ll no longer agree to write for or be interviewed by them (you can read my old stuff free of charge here or here), unless and until there’s a complete change of editorial direction. I encourage all other scientists to commit likewise, thereby making it common knowledge that the entity that now calls itself “Scientific American” bears the same relation to the legendary home of Martin Gardner as does a corpse to a living being. Fortunately, there are high-quality online venues (e.g., Quanta) that partly fill the role that Scientific American abdicate

After reading my Facebook post, my friend Ashutosh Jogalekar was inspired to post an essay of his own. Ashutosh used to write regularly for Scientific American, until he was fired seven years ago over a column in which he advocated acknowledging Richard Feynman’s flaws, including his arrogance and casual sexism, but also understanding those flaws within the context of Feynman’s whole life, including the tragic death of his first wife Arlene. (Yes, that was really it! Read the piece!) Below, I’m sharing Ashutosh’s moving essay about E. O. Wilson with Ashutosh’s very generous permission.

I think refusing to write for (or subscribe to) Scientific American is the proper response of scientists and laypeople. It’s not just this one article, either, for clearly the mission of the magazine has changed from informing the public about science to socially engineering American society to conform to the editors’ “Progressive Leftist” standards.

But on to Jogalekar, who sees Wilson as I knew him: a kindly man without a trace of racism in his psyche. Just a few quotes:

Ed Wilson was one of the gentlest, most eloquent, most brilliant and most determined advocates for both human and natural preservation you could find. Under Southern charm lay hidden unyielding doggedness and immense stamina combined with a missionary zeal to communicate the wonders of science to both his fellow biologists and the general public. His autobiography, “Naturalist”, is perhaps the finest, most literary statement of the scientific life I have read; it was one of a half dozen books that completely transported me when I read it in college. In book after book of wide-ranging intellectual treats threading through a stunning diversity of disciplines, he sent out clarion calls for saving the planet, for enabling dialogue between the natural and the social sciences, for understanding each other better. In the face of unprecedented challenges to our fragile environment and continued barriers to interdisciplinary communication, this is work that likely will make him go down in history as one of the most important human beings who ever lived, easily of the same caliber and achievement as John Muir or Thoreau. Even in terms of achievement strictly defined by accolades – the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize which recognizes fields excluded by the Nobel Prize, and not just one but two Pulitzer Prizes – few scientists from any field in the 20th century can hold a candle to Ed Wilson. My friend Richard Rhodes who knew Wilson for decades as a close and much-admired friend said that there wasn’t a racist bone in his body; Dick should know since he just came out with a first-rate biography of Wilson weeks before his passing.

One thing that the Sci. Am. hatchet job neglected was to mention the good that the man did, including his conservation work. That was an unforgivable omission. Although some would consider his work on evolutionary psychology to be a minus in his career, you’d have to be a complete fool to deny that the world was better for Wilson’s presence.

More from Jogalekar:

[The author of the op-ed] not only maligned and completely misrepresented Wilson but did not say a word about his decades-long, heroic effort to preserve the planet and our relationship with it; it was clear that she had little acquaintance with Wilson’s words since she did not cite any. It’s also worth noting the gaping moral blindness in her article which completely misses the most moral thing Wilson did – spend decades advocating for saving our planet and averting a catastrophe of extinction, climate change and divisiveness – and instead focuses completely on his non-existent immorality. This is a pattern that is consistently found among those urging “social justice” or “equity” or whatever else: somehow they seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.

In the end, the simple fact is that McLemore didn’t care about any of this. She didn’t care because she had a political agenda and the facts did not matter to her, even facts as basic as the definition of the normal distribution in statistics. For her, Wilson was some obscure white male scientist who was venerated, and that was reason enough for a supposed “takedown”. And the editor of Scientific American supported and lauded this ignorant, ideology-driven tirade.

He applauds Scott for severing ties with the magazine, and urges us to do likewise:

To my few friends and colleagues who still write for the magazine and whose opinions I continue to respect, I really wish to ask: Why? Is writing for a magazine which has sacrificed facts and the liberal voice of real science at the altar of political ideology and make believe still worth it? What would it take for you to say no more?

Well, I won’t work with them either, but they’ve never asked me, so I have nothing to lose!

________________

UPDATE: Greg Mayer sent me a link to a 2014 interview of Ed Wilson in today’s Harvard Gazette. In there you can find Wilson saying this:

I stepped into a minefield by finishing this big book, “Sociobiology,” with a chapter saying how it could be applied to people. I tried to be cautious. I should have been more politically careful, by saying this does not imply racism, it does not imply sexism, I’m not trying to defend capitalism, so don’t drop the world on top of me. If I’d added that in the book, then I might have gotten off a little easier.

. . . But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked.

. . . When I was writing “Sociobiology,” if I had to do it over again, I would have written a solid piece in that infamous final chapter and said that it really tells us nothing about the best political system or correct ideology.

Scientific American does an asinine hit job on E. O. Wilson, calling him a racist

December 30, 2021 • 10:45 am

Scientific American has hit rock bottom with this new op-ed that is nothing more than a hit piece on Ed Wilson, basically calling him a racist.

It is written by someone who apparently has no training in evolutionary biology, though she says she “intimately familiarized [herself] with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior.” I usually don’t question someone because of their credentials, but this piece is so stupid, so arrantly ignorant of Wilson’s work, that I can attribute its content only to a combination of ignorance (perhaps deliberate) or a woke desire to take down someone as a racist who wasn’t a racist. Or both.

In fact, the piece below could have been written by any social-justice ideologue, for its real aim is more than smearing Wilson; it;s also to change the nature of science. Read on.

Once again, the magazine evinces a ridiculous wokeness; how could its editor, Laura Helmuth, allow this to be published?  I recommend your reading it; it’s short and also free (click on the screenshot):

I could rant forever about the ignorance of this woman, but will try to refrain. Note the links above that say “discrimination” and “racism”. But nowhere in the article does she give one iota of evidence that Wilson was a racist. Yes, he was a biological determinist—and not a pure biological determinist, for he wrote books about the influence of culture and genetics—but I never heard him say or write anything to indicate that he was biased against members of other groups. (The author, Monica R. McLemore, is black.) Not all people who claim that genes have a role in human behavior are racists, you know. And if you claim that genes don’t have any influence in modern behavior, which was Wilson’s point in writing the last chapter of Sociobiology, then you’re ignorant and wrong. .

If Wilson was a racist, shouldn’t McLemore should have adduced evidence for that? I see none. I see stuff that she considers to be evidence, but it’s not at all convincing.

Here’s her sole evidence that Wilson was “problematic” and that he was a racist:

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public.

I suggest you read the last chapter of Sociobiology: it merely speculates about how human evolution could have influenced many modern human behaviors and traits, including sociality, altruism, aesthetics, and morality. There’s nothing I could find in that chapter suggesting that Wilson is a racist, or that he thinks that differences between races that have promoted racism are determined by genes. The word “race,” in fact, doesn’t even appear in the index.

Yes, Wilson was a biological determinist to some degree about animal and human behavior, but we all should be! After all, why should humans be the sole species whose behavior isn’t affected by their evolution? But to repeat myself:  thinking that differences between people or even groups could have a genetic component is not the same thing as racism, which is based on hierarchies and bigotry. Now, Wilson might have been accused of racism by people like my own Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin (I don’t know about that, though), but they never adduced evidence for that. Nor does McLemore. For reasons best known to herself, she’s just terribly eager to brand a famous scientist as a bigot.

More “evidence”:

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

We’ve talked about most of these people before, and yes, they had ideas that today would be considered racist, but Darwin was also an abolitionist. And MENDEL, for crying out loud? Find me one piece of Mendel’s writings that suggest that the good friar was a racist! Were green peas considered superior to yellow peas? Here we have McLemore simply making stuff up: throwing Mendel’s discoveries of inheritance into the pot with the other accused “racists.” This is dreadful scholarship, almost humorous in its ignorant assertions.

But wait! There’s more!

Even modern geneticists and genome scientists struggle with inherent racism in the way they gather and analyze data. In his memoir A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, geneticist J. Craig Venter writes, “The complex provenance of ideas means their origin is often open to interpretation.”

I will pass on, as that sentence has nothing to do with racism and proves nothing.

One more bit of “evidence” that Wilson and his “problematic” peers were racist:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

What this has to do with Wilson, much less Galton, Darwin, Pearson, and Mendel, eludes me. In fact, the paragraph makes almost no sense to me. McLemore, it seems, is a Pecksniff for Racism, trying to find it in everything that exists, including the famous normal distribution itself.

On Twitter, one reader asked McLemore why she didn’t actually quote any of Wilson’s words to show his racism, and she gives the answer of a person who didn’t do her homework, turning a necessity (her laziness or ideological zeal) into a virtue:

McLemore goes on, implying again and again that various factors imply Wilson was racist, but it’s all nonsense:

Second, the application of the scientific method matters: what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes.

Yes—but so what?

Lastly, examining nurture versus nature without any attention to externalities, such as opportunities and potential (financial structures, religiosity, community resources and other societal structures), that deeply influence human existence and experiences is both a crude and cruel lens. This dispassionate query will lead to individualistic notions of the value and meaning of human lives while, as a society, our collective fates are inextricably linked.

Externalities, Dr. McLemore, are environments, or “nurture”! Again, we get a paragraph that basically says nothing.

McLemore then gives three ways to help us evaluate “problematic” scientists, including turning the enterprise into a Mandela initiative:

First, truth and reconciliation are necessary in the scientific record, including attention to citational practices when using or reporting on problematic work.

. . . Second, diversifying the scientific workforce is crucial not only to asking new types of research questions and unlocking new discoveries but also to conducting better scienceOther scholars have pointed out that feminist standpoint theory is helpful in understanding white empiricism and who is eligible to be a worthy observer of the human condition and our world. We can apply the same approach to scientific research.

. . . Finally, we need new methods. One of the many gifts of the Human Genome Project was the creativity it spawned beyond revealing the secrets of the genome, such as new rules about public availability and use of data.

I really can’t go on, except to add two things. First, McLemore herself is being unscientific in accusing “problematic” Ed Wilson of racism without mentioning one bit of evidence. And MENDEL??? There is no scholarship involved in this piece, and, in the end defaming Wilson seems like merely an excuse for McLemore to vent her ill-considered antiracist views of science on the readers of Scientific American.

Finally, the really problematic people today are not Ed Wilson; they are people like McLemore herself, who simply ignores evidence, makes misleading statements about scientists, and accuses science of being structurally racist in a way for which only she knows the cure. It is people like her who are not only defacing and distorting history, but trying to change the face of science from being a set of tools to investigate nature into a set of ideological practices to achieve Social Justice.

I haven’t yet investigated the Twittersphere, but reader Paul directed me to this thread, which contains many more takes on this article. Almost none of them are good. Here are just a few. Khan, author of the first two tweets, is a geneticist.

I usually don’t express sentiments this extreme on this site, but I have to say that I’m not that far off from Wright here:

If you still subscribe to Scientific American, you’d better have a damn good reason why.  It’s too late to urge editor Laura Helmuth to change the tone of the magazine, for it’s clearly the tone she wants: less science, more wokeness.

Michael Shermer documents the decline and fall of Scientific American

November 18, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’ve written about a dozen posts calling out Scientific American for its fulminating wokeness (give me another word if you don’t like that one), in particular its use of op-eds to discuss and promote woke ideological views that have little or nothing to do with science.  A lot of readers here have canceled their subscriptions, but that hasn’t stopped Editor-in-Chief Laura Helmuth from subverting what was once the premier popular science magazine in America, turning it into a “progressive” political mouthpiece whose “real science” articles get lamer and lamer.

Michael Shermer has personal experience of this, as he wrote over 200 columns for the magazine, eventually parting ways because the editors didn’t like the messages of some of his columns. He recounts this, and makes two other points, in his longish column at his new Substack site, “Skeptic“. The title below tells the tale (click below to read for free, but subscribe if you read often).

It’s a tripartite column, making three points.

1.) The magazine has published a lot of woke and relatively nonscientific op-eds over the past few years. We know this becaise I’ve singled out almost all of the ones that Michael mentions (and more), but let’s reiterate a few (with links to the original columns and my critiques):

 “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past,”   My critique is here.

“Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy.”  This is a particularly ludicrous column implying that the motivation for creationism is white supremacy. Any fool knows that it’s almost always religion. My critiques are here and here. I do not understand how the editor allowed such an egregious misrepresentation to be published.

“Why the Term ‘JEDI’ is Problematic for Describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” This was a real doozy, unhinged in its claims. My critique is here.

There are others, but these are the three that Shermer singles out. He discusses each at some length, so go see what he says.

2.) Despite the magazine’s claims, inequities in areas or professions are not prima facie evidence for bigotry, racism, or bias. Riffing on the first article above, which uses the paucity of female and black mathematicians as evidence for misogyny and racism, Shermer makes the obvious point that while there is racism in every aspect of human endeavor, academics is about the least racist area of all. That’s shown by the frenetic efforts of nearly every department and college to hire women and minorities. Shermer’s point, which the woke hate (and thus ignore) is an obvious one: that disparities between sexes or races in representaiton could have other causes, such as differential preferences—or a “pipeline” issue that reflects lack of opportunity due to past discrimination but not present day bigotry. Why can’t progressives grasp this point and parse out the various causes of inequities before crying “sexism and racism”? Because they have a preconceived bias that they don’t want addressed with data. It’s an example of what J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem”: “What I say three times must be true.” (This is from Lewis Carroll.)

Shermer supports his arguments—and the woke will really hate this—by showing that there’s a huge disparity between men and women in the number of doctoral degrees awarded—in favor of women. Overall in U.S universities, the percentage of doctorates going to women in 2019 was 52.9% as opposed to 47.1% for men.

Further, the disparity depends on the field. The chart Shermer gives below showing doctorates divided by sex and field of study won’t surprise you:


(Note the near-equality in Biology as well as in the Arts and Humanities). But Shermer further points out that the disparities favoring women are never cited as examples of anti-male bias, while those that favor men are cited as examples of sexism. Shermer notes:

When the data is [sic] presented in a bar graph rank ordered from highest to lowest percentages for females earning doctorates (below), the claim that the fields in which women earn lower percentages than men can only be explained by misogyny and bias is gainsaid by the top bars where the valance is reversed, unless we are to believe that only in those bottom fields are faculty and administrators still bigoted against women whereas those in the top fields are enlightened.

3.) Shermer was eventually booted from the magazine, ending his column, because he adduced facts and explanations that the woke editors didn’t like. Shermer’s conflicts with the editors grew gradually, starting when he pointed out that people can get false impressions of the prevalence of a phenomenon if they pay attention only to coincidences and not exceptions. He uses as an example the “horror movie curse”, in which stars of horror movies are said to suffer later mishaps more often that stars of other movies. He notes that “those seeing supernatural intervention” in this “are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed (‘hits’) and forgetting the other three possibilities (‘misses’, ‘false alarms’, and ‘correct rejections’ in Signal Detection Theory parlance.”

That’s true (Steve Pinker has made this point about the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is smaller than we think because the news tends to play up the bloody stuff an ignore people falling in bathtubs and the like). But the editors got upset when Shermer made a similar point about child abuse with a similar four-celled dissection (below). As he said in the column, in a bit that wasn’t published:

I then added a more serious example of the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, provided to me by the renowned social psychologist Carol Tavris, citing her skepticism about the theory that sexually abusive parents were themselves sexually abused as children. This was a common explanation until researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children, and that most abusive parents were not abused as children (see the 2×2 matrix below from my PPT lecture).

Not that got the editor’s hackles up, because even though there is a possible confirmation bias here, it involves sexual abuse and we must ignore other explanations. As the editor said:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for a revision on your November Skeptic column. The overall idea is sound—another example I often think of is “I was just thinking about you—and then you called! It’s ESP!” But we’re unwilling to publish a piece that suggests—even in a quote attributed to someone else [Carol Tavris]—that sexual harassment and the phenomenon of abused children growing up to be abusers are less of a problem than most people imagine. Heuristics are all very well, but unlike with spooky deaths related to horror movies, these involve real harm to real people.

But it could be less of a problem than most people imagine, just like the “horror movie curse” example.

Shermer responded in part:

I’ll find other examples and send you another draft, but the point is NOT that sexual harassment or abuse is not as large a problem as we think (or that its effects are not as harmful as we thought); the point is that in our attempt to understand why, say, the sexual abuse of children happens, the hypothesis that their abusers were themselves abused as children is gainsaid by the cell in which all those kids who were abused as children grow up to not only not be abusers, but to be loving parents who wouldn’t dream of harming their children; and the other cell in which abusive adults were not abused as children.

I understand why we need to be sensitive to victims of abuse, but from a purely scientific hypothesis-testing perspective, it doesn’t serve society to refuse to consider the other cells in the matrix that contain disconfirming evidence of the hypothesis just because someone is committed to the hypothesis that abused children grow up to be abusers, and abusive adults were abused as children. The evidence shows otherwise. It should be okay to point that out.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact sussing out why people sexually abuse children is far more important than studying the “horror movie curse”. Analysis of the former must take into account biases, and the editor didn’t like that—simply because the topic was sexual abuse.

Matters came to a head (I don’t like that phrase as it’s about boils and pimples) when Shermer submitted a column about tribalism, which he reprints in its entirety. and made what today is considered a serious mistake: citing Martin Luther King’s dictum that people should by judged by their character rather than their pigmentation. (This is now verboten, as it contravenes the dominant narrative that we must see color.) Shermer was given one “farewell” column and then handed his walking papers.

The interchange between Michael and his editors gives us some insight into the termites chewing into the edifice of Scientific American. My prediction is that unless the editors go back to its original format and lay off the propagandizing, the magazine will fold. After all, you can read about social justice and wokeness nearly everywhere, including Teen Vogue, but Scientific American was once unique.

h/t: Luana

The full paper on which saints to pray to when you’ve got Covid, and a laudatory reply

August 29, 2021 • 9:45 am

Yesterday I wrote about an unbelievably weird paper in the Elsevier journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. It reports a survey on Facebook and Twitter by three European scientists, curious about which saints respondents thought were the best ones to pray to for those who get Covid. This wasn’t just a survey of Catholic opinion, but was presented almost as a crowdsourced guide about which saints to call upon should you get the virus. The title is below, but presents only bits of the paper, and I couldn’t access the full thing because our library doesn’t get that journal. To see the snippets, click below:

Further, trying to ascertain if this paper was real by looking on the journal’s website (yes, it’s real), I also found that there was a “comment”, which I automatically assumed was a critical letter. (Click on screenshot below to see the site, but again, it’s paywalled):

Now, however, several kind readers have gotten hold of both the entire original paper and the reply, which you might be able to see via judicious inquiry. The short original paper is as bad as I suspected from the snippet, and the letter is completely weird, as it praises the original paper and then suggests that the authors left out one important saint. San Gennaro, known to Catholics as St. Januarius. (You might recall that the young Godfather murders Don Fanucci during the San Gennaro festival in New York City, with the fireworks masking the gunshots.)

First, the original paper. The authors surveyed, over just four days, followers on Twitter and Facebook. They asked the following question (it’s not really a question; this paper badly needs editing for English):

“Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”

They asked 15,840 people (92% from Europe) and got 1158 responses. There’s no information on the sex, age, or cultural background of the respondents.  Here are the answers:

St. Rita is said to practice self-mortification, had a difficult marriage, and “is considered patron saint of lost causes.” The next two, Saints Roch and Sebastian, are seen as protectors from the plague. The authors go on to discuss the saints not only as if they were real, but as if the miracles they were said to perform were real! An example (I can’t copy from the pdfs so am giving screenshots).

Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!

And here’s the paper’s summary, which certainly lends credibility to my guess that the authors do think this list will help people get over the virus. You could argue that it’s just a sociological report of what Catholics think, but I suspect there’s more behind it.

As for the “letter,” it’s not a critique, but praises the “brilliant” paper of Perciaccante et al. and then adds that the authors missed an important saint—perhaps because some regions of Italy that worship St. Gennaro (e.g., Naples) weren’t included in the survey. They end by saying that there are conflicting results about whether prayer “works” in curing disease, but that it does make people feel psychologically better. Here’s the whole thing, written by three Italian researchers:

Note that the miraculous liquefaction of St. Januarius’s blood is taken for granted as a real miracle. (See here for naturalistic explanations.)

Two papers are cited (#3 and 4) that, say Brancaccio et al., show conflicting effects of remote intercessory prayer on the outcome of coronary patients. The first coronary care paper is well known, and found no effect (in fact, there was one negative effect of remote intercessory prayer on healing). The second, which I just scanned, appears to give marginal positive results, with the probability that the “improved” effect of prayer could be due to chance alone being 4% (lower than 5% is considered significant, but the authors did not correct for using multiple indices of healing, which one would normally do using a Bonferroni test). The effect of prayer, even accepting their wonky probability, is very small.

Regardless, even if researchers are going to waste their time trawling for marginally significant effects of prayer on healing, do they need to also investigate which saints should be prayed to? What is the patron saint of heart issues? Did the intercessory prayers evoke that individual, or were the prayers generic? The paper doesn’t say, so apparently the selected “pray-er” was just given the first name of the patient and told to go to town.

Given the possibility that prayer promotes favorable medical outcomes, I’m surprised that doctors and scientists aren’t doing tons of research on this important issue. I wonder why.

More mishigas at Scientific American: A claim that opposition to evolution comes from white supremacy, not religion

July 11, 2021 • 10:00 am

As Scientific American continues its inexorable circling of the drain, it’s approaching the drainhole itself. For, from a week ago, we have an op-ed by Allison Hopper asserting that Americans’ rejection of evolution—73% of Americans are either straight-up Biblical creationists (40%) or think God helped guide evolution (33%)—is due not to religion as many suppose, but to white supremacy. It’s all about racism, Jake! (I was not the first to proposed the religion-is-the-main-cause of rejecting-evolution thesis, but laid out the case, with supporting data, in a paper in Evolution in 2012.)

Hopper rejects that thesis in her Sci Am article, saying that the idea that people reject evolution because of religion is a “lie”. To wit:

“I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies. “

Well, she’s dead wrong about her thesis, as I’ll argue below, but also in her claim that evolution denialism “perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.” It does nothing of the sort! You really have to distort your thinking to claim that people are prone to deny evolution because they’re white supremacists, much less embrace the idea that creationism (which is what I’ll call “evolution denial”, since they’re pretty much equivalent in America) creates “violence against Black bodies”. What kind of violence? Has any black person been harmed in the name of creationism? And what is it with this “black bodies” trope?  That seems to me distinctly unwoke, since the trend in “progressive” language is to emphasize the humanity of oppressed people, i.e., “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves”. Saying “black bodies” instead of “black people” clearly dehumanizes people, and I deplore it.

But I digress. Before we examine Hopper’s arguments, such as they are, here are her bona fides from the article:

Allison Hopper is a filmmaker and designer with a master’s degree in educational design from New York University. Early in her career, she worked on PBS documentaries. More recently, she’s been creating content for young people on the topic of evolution. She has presented on evolution at the Big History Conference in Amsterdam and Chautauqua, among other places.

And here’s her article, which you can read for free by clicking on the screenshot below:

Hopper is trying here to jump on the current bandwagon that everything is about race, including rejection of evolution. And, she implies, once we acquaint people with the fact that creationism is a product not of religion but of white supremacy, they’ll give up their creationism and embrace evolution.

Her argument goes like this:

1.) Many people don’t realize that all humans descend from African ancestors (true).

2.) Those African ancestors had dark skin. (Also true.) However, in their case “black” or “brown” does not equate with “oppressed”, since there were no white people to oppress them. Different species of hominin may have oppressed each other, but that had nothing to do with pigmentation.

3.) Importantly, human culture sprang from dark-skinned ancestors who had religion, language, fire, and tool use. These were the foundations, argues Hopper, for the culture we have today. It’s true that these bases (except, perhaps, for religion and language, about whose origin we know virtually nothing) probably sprang from dark-skinned ancestors. But other features of modern culture evolved in Europe and the Middle East, where natural selection had already been lightening skin color. (This constant emphasis on the overweening importance of skin color repels me.) At any rate, agriculture and its attendant amenities of civilization probably arose about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East among people who were not black (but may have been brown) and further developed by people of all colors, including whites and Asians. But who cares? Only someone obsessed with racism and determined to make it the basis for everything bad.

4.) Hopper cares, for she says that evolution’s truth dispels the Biblical story that Adam and Eve (who were supposedly white) were instrumental in creating black people, who descended from a bad person—Cain—who killed his brother. This “mark of Cain” thesis that supposedly connects creationism with white supremacy, is advanced in several ways by Hopper:

Science education in the U.S. is constantly on the defensive against antievolution activists who want biblical stories to be taught as fact. In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s. Ever since then, entrenched racism and the ban on teaching evolution in the schools have gone hand in hand. In his piece,What We Get Wrong About the Evolution Debate, Adam Shapiro argues that “the history of American controversies over evolution has long been entangled with the history of American educational racism.”

In fact, anybody who looks at the data on creationism sees immediately its connection with the Biblical creation story (not including Cain)—the view that God created everything almost instantaneously, with humans made in His/Her/Their image. Everybody promoting creationism and intelligent design is religious, and all creationist organizations are religious at bottom.

In my life I’ve met hundreds of creationists, and every one of them was religious. (David Berlinski, whom I haven’t met, may be the one exception, but that’s just one person and he may be dissimulating about religion anyway.) They make no bones about their views, either. Yet in none of these people have I heard anything about white supremacy. Sure, there may be racists among creationists—there has to be given the connection between Evangelical Christianity and the South—but you’d have to essentially make things up to argue that creationism comes from white supremacy and that its connection with religion is “a lie.” (At any rate, were Hopper’s story of Cain and Abel true, it still shows a connection between creationism and religion.)

But wait! There’s more:

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

There are those “Black bodies” again.  But what are the “lethal” effects? Were black bodies really killed because white bigots and lynchers were motivated by a refusal to accept our ancient ancestry? I doubt it, and I doubt whether they were motivated by religion, either. They were motivated, I believe, by tribalism and the heritage of slavery with its attendant beliefs that blacks were inferior beings.

In fact, when Hopper talks about the dearth of children’s books on evolution, she inadvertently admits that religion (not the story of Cain and Abel!) is tilting kids towards creationism:

If you go on Amazon and look up “children’s books on evolution” you will find about 10–15 relevant titles. This is in contrast to the hundreds of children’s books on other scientific subjects such as chemistry, astronomy and other less controversial subjects. I found only one book on evolution for preschoolers, called Grandmother Fish. The author had to self-fund the book through Kickstarter.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of children’s books available on Amazon that focus on biblical origin stories. Science deniers are pumping money into a well-funded antievolution machine. In 2007, the creationists built their own Bible-themed museum and amusement park. What they understand is that to reach young children you need music, colorful characters and celebration.

Kids get their religion long before they learn evolution, and by the time they’re presented with Darwin and his successors, they’ve had at least a decade of indoctrination in the Bible, with many being Biblical literalists. They are effectively immunized against evolution. Racism is a separate issue.

In the end, Hopper argues that if we can just tell the story of evolution properly, including that we all came from Africa and our earliest ancestors were dark-skinned, creationism would go away:

. . . even in the current literature about human origins that we do have, the end point of evolution is often depicted as a white man carrying a spear. This image not only eliminates our African heritage but also erases women and children from the picture. Because evolution is foundational knowledge, we need the story to be told in many different ways, by many different voices.

As we move forward to undo systemic racism in every aspect of business, society, academia and life, let’s be sure to do so in science education as well. Embracing humanity’s dark-skinned ancestors with love and respect is key to changing our relationship to the past, and to creating racial equity in the present. These ancient people made the rest of us possible. Opening our hearts to them and embracing them as heroic, fully human and worthy of our respect is part of the process of healing from our racist history.

I wasn’t aware that the teaching of evolution was systemically racist; do teachers really deny that our ancestors were African? And does Hopper really believe that accepting that will get rid of racism? Really? Even Darwin was a monogenist, saying that all groups of humans arose from a single ancestor who probably lived in Africa. Did that get rid of racism? I don’t think so, though some people think Darwin’s monogenism was part of a strategy to combat racism.

(I can’t get over my gag reflex when hearing that we need to embrace our ancestors with “love and respect”, since I don’t know that they were either lovable or respectable)

Okay, now what’s the evidence against Hopper’s thesis? It’s strong:

a.) Ask people why they think evolution didn’t happen. Many will say because they believe the Bible or the Qur’an. Nobody will say because it shows that white people are superior. (Of course, you can say they won’t admit their bigotry.)

b.) Every creationist organization from Answers in Genesis to the Discovery Institute is based on religion, while we find no creationist organizations whose platform is white supremacy. As I said, the two are tangentially connected because of the religious and white-supremacist nature of the American South, but this is a matter of correlation, not causation.

c.) Most telling: several surveys, listed and summarized in this paper, show that blacks and Hispanics deny evolution more than do whites. This is the opposite of what Hopper predicts, but makes sense under the “religion-first” hypothesis, since blacks and Hispanics tend to be more religious than whites in general.

d.) There is a highly statistically significant negative correlation between the religiosity of 34 European countries and their acceptance of evolution, as I noted in my Evolution paper. Most of these countries are nearly all white, save France and Germany, which have high acceptance of evolution (and more black people than, say, Iceland or Demark). The US is near the bottom in accepting evolution (I’ll give the data in a minute), not because the U.S. has a higher percentage of whites than most European countries—it doesn’t—but because the U.S. is far more religious then Europe.

Here’s the correlation I found. The U.S., labeled, is next to last in accepting evolution, while below us lies only Turkey: a Muslim country that, by the way, happens to comprise many “people of color”. Note that the most religious countries, to the right, are the least accepting of evolution. I discuss issues with these data (nonindependence, etc.) in the Evolution paper.

And here are the data from Miller and Scott (2006) that I used to make the plot for my own paper:

The religiosity of these countries, which appears in the graph above, came from other sources given in my Evolution paper.

The thing to note is that virtually all these countries are white, and yet the correlation holds across them all. As I said, the countries with the highest proportion of evolution rejectors (those at the bottom)—are not only the most religious, but also probably contain the highest proportion of people of color. This is what the religious hypothesis proposes, but it goes counter to Hopper’s thesis, which predicts that the whitest countries should be the least accepting of evolution, for rejection of evolution is a sign of white supremacy. (Of course, you could argue that white supremacy will be manifested only in countries with a substantial proportion of black people, but that’s pushing it.) In fact, Hopper’s argument is a post facto confection to support anti-racism, and appears to make no predictions that seem to stand up to scrutiny.

It seems to me that Hopper is not only deeply misguided, but also motivated by ideology, tying creationism directly to white supremacy, and almost completely dismissing its connection to religion. As I always say, “You can have religion without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.” Hopper seems to have deliberately ignored data inimical to her hypothesis, which of course is what one does when afflicted with the kind of confirmation bias that comes with wokeness.

And it’s just another sign that whoever’s in charge of Scientific American is letting through ill-informed and erroneous material.  What has happened to that once-respectable magazine? Is there no longer an audience for the lively yet informative articles they used to publish? Are they becoming the Evergreen State of popular science magazines?

h/t: Eli